Museums Of The Peculiar

Film, London, Observatory, The Arts

I’m in rainy, humid Barcelona this weekend, sandwiched between two odd museums, The Museum of Cannabis and the Museum of Chocolate (presumably one would visit them in that order, possibly adding the Museum of Pizza). Chocolate I can understand as it has always been seen with different purposes: as medicinal, an aphrodisiac, a nutritional food and something located between myth and reality. Meanwhile on London’s ‘The Great Wen’ site there’s a look at what is effectively the Museum of Illness, the Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital.

Have museums always been this specific, or is it a new thing? On Euston Road you can see Napoleon’s toothbrush at the Wellcome, a Museum of medicine, a museum of biology and a museum of literature in the British Library. My local museum is about canal boats and ice cream (the two linked by the fact that ice was once transported by canal boat and stored under the museum in its ice house).

London’s Black Museum is still heading toward a public opening under the title of the Police Museum, Boston has a Museum of Bad Art, Germany has a curried sausage museum, Leeds Castle houses a dog collar museum, Iceland has a phallus museum, and those crazy Japanese have a Parasite Museum. I seem to recall visiting Amsterdam’s museum of torture (there’s another in San Gimignano, Italy) and Greenwich’s museum of fans.

But are these really museums? When does a museum become a museum and not just a collection of similar objects? There are said to be over 300 museums in London alone, and I certainly recall growing up within walking distance of at least half a dozen.

Two museums failed in London, the museum of film, a disastrous South Bank miss-mash of the mundane (old projection equipment) and the hokey (actors dressed as movie stars) and more sadly, Covent Garden’s Theatre Museum, which in a city that has the greatest number and history of theatres in the world seemed like a dead cert, but closed its doors after a long struggle to survive a few years back. Perhaps theatre is simply to ephemeral to survive as a permanent exhibition.

27 comments on “Museums Of The Peculiar”

  1. GB Steve says:

    The Museum of Chocolate’s a great place. The air itself is saturated with the odour, it’s practically a high. My favourite musuem is the one in Truth or Consequences, NM. It looks like a few bits of rock in the front room of the house, but then you find another room with Pueblo artifacts and then another one about the Spanish and then another one about the move West and so on, until you finally come to a big barn like room which has the history of the game show and why the town has that name. It’s archly parochial but it’s also a voyage of discovery. The Museum Of, behind the Oxo Tower, had this vibe too.

  2. Gary says:

    The MOMI suffered from the fact that it was not the sort of museum that you would ever be bothered in going back to for a second look. Somewhere like the British Museum is so vast that you can spend weeks looking through all of the stuff properly. I can recall the Hammer films exhibit that the MOMI did back in the 90s, where more effort seemed to have been spent publicising it than in getting exhibits.

    What exactly is going on with the Black Museum? The stuff that I’ve seen and read about it makes it sound rather fascinating, although I assume that the Bow street site will an adjunct to the the Black Museum rather than the real thing. Some of the items in the real museum are apparently a bit too grisly/too recent/part of still open cases to be shown to the public. Plus, this is the sort of thing that would need a curator to show you round and explain the context of the items. There’s a piece in TIME OUT from a few years back where the writer of the article does quite a bit of sneering at anyone who would actually want to go and see it I(after telling readers that he spent years trying to get to see it!)

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    “It is rainy”.
    Dear god, those words yet again. What is it that triggers this above yourself? Do you never carry a bumbershoot? Many people swear had taking one along wards off the wet.

  4. John Howard says:

    It’s Deep English Dan. Has nobody ever told you that the weather is all we talk about?? ( What the hell is a bumbershoot? – I could guess but i’m not sure I want to ).

    As for the MOMI, I remember taking a walk along the South Bank one SUNNY Sunday, trying to find it and failing miserably. C’est la guerre.

    To my mind a museum houses a variety of collections. Anywhere from ancient Egypt to clocks to bits of red thread….. The first of what became know as a museum was put together, it seems almost accidentally, by John Tradescant and formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Go to the Ashmolean and have a look at the Alfred Jewel. It was made 12 hundred years ago and is quite fabulous ( In the best possible sense of the word )

  5. Gary says:

    A bumbershoot is an American word for umbrella sometimes attributed to the British by Americans. I have never heard or seen it used over here in any context whatsoever.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    It is only used by Americans for Britsh umbrellas and is admittedly rare. (But the topic here is “peculiar”, so why not I say. Admin can put it into file on his odd words.) It’s another word for brolly.
    The plurel is bumbershoots, but should not be used when ordering Chinese take-away. For example: “And one number 11, please. Chicken, bambooshoots, snow peas… oh, add some bumbershoots.”
    Howard: You could of quessed. I’d never directly employ an off-colourism here,as the States share a common border with Canada. If you get my Continental Drift, a-hum.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    That’s right. All the up tight, Presbyterian raised Canadians are constantly on the watch for any slips into careless spelling, phrasing, or off colour usage of the English language. We have a separate set of Catholic raised people in Quebec to monitor French language communications.
    I wonder how narrow an interest has to be in order to rate a display as collection rather than museum. Vancouver has an anthropology museum which is largely concerned with the culture of the west coast first nations, but does have items from other cultures. (It has open storage, too, which means display cases have drawers which enable you to see all sorts of other items not currently on official display.) We used to have a city museum which was a displayed collection of odds and sods, while we now have a categorized one which takes only items definitely connected to the city or things which could be used as trades or funding for other acquisitions. I’ve often wondered about the differences.

  8. John Howard says:

    Continental Drift received and understood captain. Off-colourisms not need on voyage for sure. You’re quite right, I could have guessed (and had really) but I would have missed the protection of a delicate female. Additionally, peculiar-isms; why not.

  9. John Howard says:

    Helen, you? uptight? Surely not. You are quite right about these dodgy Americans though. One never knows when they will slip into off-colour-isms. Thank god ( sorry, goodness ), you are there looking out for us.

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    To misquote our former Pres. Bill Clinton: “I feel my pain.” Smile. And I am certainly having a sloppy day and, in addition, the rotten keys are acting up yet again with no malware or antivirus programs running. My local tech support man assures me he’ll log into my system one day soon, or dro in, so perhaps in a week or more it’ll just be all my bad. Grrr.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    The Black Museum is one place where I would be grateful for a knowledgeable guide since one piece of rope looks pretty much like another and even the case names might not trigger a connection. A good docent can really bring things to life. The alternative would be one of those audio tour things.
    Have you noticed that the tech people always have a number of jobs on so that you always come far down the list? Now, why do so many people have problems with their computers? We have had our power out twice in the last week – wind storms and last night an “equipment failure”, whatever that is – and Ken has had some difficulty with the router, but it finally complied and routed so we didn’t have to call our techie.
    That word, by the way, is ‘rooter’ because it directs signals along a path, not a ‘rowter’ which is a power tool to shape wood. Since Americans drive along ‘rowts’ they call the computer part a name to match, but we drive along ‘roots’ so we should remain consistent. Just FYI

  12. Jez Winship says:

    A lot of the items which were in the Theatre Museum are now in the V&A, which doesn’t have the dramatic theatrical backdrop of the Covent Garden building, but at least they’re still on display.
    I’ve passed the Fan Museum on many an occasion, but never gone in. I imagine it would be unexpectedly fascinating, though. There was a display of fans from a private collector in my local museum recently. They were quite beautiful, and revealed some interesting things about the formal social rituals of the time.
    There’s also a ‘Barometer World’ down in Devon (the word ‘museum’ evidently having been considered offputting), which would seem to appeal to a very particular interest group.

  13. Amsterdam also has the Katten Kabinet, which is a collection of cat-related artworks. The rooms the artworks are kept in have been restored, as far as possible, to maintain the 18th and 19th century furnishings and decorations which is quite interesting in itself. It’s not as twee as it sounds! In keeping with the theme, there were 3 or 4 cats living in the place and wandering around (or snoozing on very old sofas!) when I last visited.

  14. andrea yang says:

    Serendipity, I first learned of the Black Museum yesterday reading Salman Rushdies new memoir and then I read your post about it. Interesting to learn it will be opening to the public.

    Suburban Houston is the unlikely home of The National Museum of Funeral History which “houses the country’s largest collection of funeral service artifacts and features renowned exhibits on one of man’s oldest cultural customs. Come discover the mourning rituals of ancient civilizations, see up-close the authentic items used in the funerals of U.S. presidents and popes, and explore the rich heritage of the industry which cares for the dead.”

  15. Alan G says:

    I once had a remarkable day in London. As part of an exchange programme we had a French schoolboy staying with us and he wanted to see England. So we started the day with a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament – guided by the, now sadly deceased, Clerk To The House. A tip – do NOT try to sit on a bench in the House of Lords… Then lunch on the Member’s balcony (beer – I was 13!) and then Prime Minister’s question time with Thatcher. Hiss.

    But – later we were taken around the Black Museum by Bill Waddell, and, being 13, we were eagerly fascinated by everything. I learned a lot that day – especially the identity of Jack the Ripper – which has joined the ranks of “who knows” since. But it was great at school the next week.

  16. snowy says:

    The opening of the ‘Black Museum’ has been mooted for years, but never happened. I’m faintly surprised that it hasn’t been dispersed to other collections.

    Those curious about the contents can get a flavour from the Metropolitan Police website, scroll down to History.

    It’s now called the ‘Crime Museum’ for the same reason that coffee only comes with or without milk.

    There is a wealth of other material as well. The first officer (Warrant No.1) only managed 4 hours of duty before being sacked for being drunk.

    (There is a separate Met Police Museum in SW6, a River Police Museum in E1 and the CoLP Museum in EC2 all free, but may require pre-booking.)

  17. Alan G says:

    Snowy – I’m curious. Who sacked the first copper?

    “You’re drunk – you’re fired!”

    “Yesh – and you are nicked, my old son…”

  18. snowy says:

    Sadly the records don’t reveal that level of detail, but William Atkinson of C Division was discharged – ‘Drunk for duty’ on the 29th of September 1829. Reports do vary but of the first 3000(ish) officers recruited only 600(ish again) still had their jobs six months later.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/naphotorecords/3388170725/in/set-72157615865852325/lightbox/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/naphotorecords/3388979200/in/set-72157615865852325/lightbox/

  19. Helen Martin says:

    And the river police museum is in that stretch of river where the maul and the pear tree incidents took place, I think.
    Alan, I imagine there were senior officers before there were basic coppers.

  20. Alan G says:

    “maul and pear tree incidents”? Please elaborate, Helen.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    The Maul and Pear Tree is the title of a book by P.D. James and someone else. I can’t lay my hands on it just now. It details two murders which took place near the London dockyard in about 1810. There was a lot of violence, brutality and blood involved. The Pear Tree was a pub/lodging house and the maul was a weapon used in one of the murders. The accused managed to commit suicide in gaol during the trial although there is a solid opinion that he was actually murdered. There are detailed maps of the streets and engravings from the newspaper stories of the time. It is a fascinating book. The river police had a site there where officers came up during the excitement. I understand that it is now their museum. I state this subject to correction, of course.

  22. snowy says:

    Helen is spot on, in every regard.

    And not intended as a correction but to contribute a little more to the pool of knowledge, the events were refered to at the time as ‘The Ratcliff Highway murders’.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Right, Snowy, and they changed the name of the road afterward but James gives you the change. The descriptions give a disturbing view of life in that part of London at the time. The idea of having men supposedly walking the streets to stop criminality, but relying on volunteers who had already put in a day’s work sounds bizarre even if understandable using their logic. The good old days certainly weren’t necessarily so.

  24. snowy says:

    Sorry to recycle the phrase ‘spot on’ again, (very poor form) but true. Quite how grim it could be is described in a book I suspect you already know, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ by Fred Engels written some 30 years later.

    It may surprise you that volunteers as you described are still used in that role to this day.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Now, would that be or be related to the Engels of Marx and Engels? Aah, yes it would. Fred, indeed! No I haven’t read it – yet. Vancouver library has a copy.
    Britain is a land of volunteering so it doesn’t surprise me but in the more ‘dangerous’ areas? We are seeing the tv series Call the Midwife, which is quite a revelation to us. There doesn’t seem to be any break between the docks themselves and the housing area and yet in 1810 the naval dockyard was surrounded by that gigantic wall. Was that just the navy trying to reduce theft and malicious damage?

  26. snowy says:

    Ok hands up, it should Friedrich but I doubt he was called by his proper name in the East End of London. The book is written in the style of it’s time and can be a difficult read. To save a trip, it can be downloaded via The Guttenberg Project.

    Volunteer police officers go out either alone or with regular officers. Depending on their skill/training they can be used anywhere including Public Order, the cosy term for riot control. There are about 5000 in London, but they are only required to do 16 hours a month. They are called Special Constables and have the same powers and equipment as regulars.

    Having paused to check the numbers, it seems Canada has Auxilary officers, which are not quite the same.

    The ‘River Police’ were not established until about 1811, and even then most docks continued to rely on physical security measures like walls and watchmen. Given that every single imported item came in through the docks of London, Liverpool or Bristol etc. they were a honeypot for thieves.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    All ports in the world were. The pilferage only stopped when the use of sealed containers became universal. In the Port of Vancouver there was an intense and prolonged argument over a “destuffing clause” by which containers would have been emptied right at the dock. Shipping agents didn’t want that because they wanted to be able to take their dedicated container to their own warehouse or put it on their own chassis to deliver it. People made a lot of remarks about longshoremen and pilferage but there was a large shift in the amount of work involved in unloading a freighter once it was just a matter of swinging containers from the ship and stacking them on the dock until a truck arrived to haul them away. Every union protects its jobs.
    Canadian Auxiliary officers are auxiliary to the RCMP and are used mostly in outlying areas (big cities have their own police)and on First Nation reserves where the auxiliaries are usually tribal members. They are trained and paid and have a number of restrictions on what they can do and I think I remember an argument over whether they should be armed or not.
    The river police turned up in The Ratcliffe Murders so they must have existed then.

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